With apologies to Plato and his cupboard full of universals, there is no such thing as the perfect peach. There are perfect peaches, of course-ones that dribble down your chin and tease you with their ambrosial scents of raspberries and rose petals. But each variety has a short harvest window, only about five to seven days in Ontario. The peach you slurped this week is not the peach you will slurp next week.
The most perfect peaches in Canada come from Niagara. Even Montrealers admit this, paying top dollar to have them shipped overnight. This is one reason the market for local peaches is so resilient to cheap imports. Unlike apples, these fuzzy fruits have been able to hold their own against the glut of foreign fruit that was precipitated by China's fruit-farm boom (the government made them tax havens in 2003). Local peaches still hold 72% of market share during Ontario's achingly short season, which, in a good year, lasts from the end of July to the second week of September.
But even peach trees can't rest on their perfumed leaves. To keep pace with the global market, fruit must grow faster, ripen earlier or later, store longer and taste sweeter. New varieties are developed at Niagara's Vineland Research Station, where breeders with doctorates in rubbing Q-tips on swollen peach stamens work tirelessly to build us ever better fruit. With any luck, it might even taste better.
Dr. Jay Subramanian, who heads up the peach breeding program at Vineland, says it takes about $250,000 to get a new variety to market. The process begins with 50,000 peach flowers, each one hand-pollinated with another variety. Of those, 300 to 500 might actually grow into trees. Whether they are hardy enough to grow commercially takes nearly two decades to determine.
Over the past 50 years or so, Vineland's fruit breeding team has been able to extend the Ontario season by a couple of weeks. Now it's setting its sights on white peaches, a more expensive, if much smaller, segment of the market. Last month, Subramanian began testing a limited number of peach 92131, an amazingly flavourful and sweet peach that was first crossed in 1992.
Subramanian's colleague, Dr. Isabelle Lesschaeve, specializes in the "sensory evaluation" of Vineland's peaches. Trained in France (bien sûr), she studies subjects as they slurp the tender fruit at the peak of ripeness. But Lesschaeve is interested in more than just their enjoyment of flavour, texture and appearance. She is also interested in how stories of where the peaches are from and how they are grown (a.k.a. marketing) can affect the consumer's enjoyment.
Subramanian hopes one day to develop a peach that Canadians could harvest at Thanksgiving; he also dreams of sending varieties to Chile so that we could import Canadian-bred peaches at Christmastime. "It's just a dream of mine," he murmurs. "But there's no harm in dreaming big."